Wind tugging at my hair as I stepped out the car the fingers of the Past beckoned me onward. Very little remains of what was once a massive airfield in World War 2 set up to protect the Royal Navy’s fleet at Scapa Flow. Grass is underfoot but I can feel the hard road surface still visible in places, defying Nature.
The Orkney landscape has been sculpted by Humankind for thousands of years. Remnants of a once great civilisation still dominate fertile fields. Twentieth Century world conflict visited Orkney twice and took over the islands. This wind battered place of farming and fishing became Fortress Orkney. Militarised with defensive installations and personnel the islands were transformed for a fleeting moment as its vital strategic location launched it onto the world stage.
HMS Tern also known as Royal Naval Air Station Twatt was a massive airfield constructed within months of the outbreak of War in 1939. Built on what was said to be the finest farmland in Orkney and started on the 10th of June 1940, by April 1st 1941 it was operational. It had four 90 feet wide runways and covered 564 acres.
I try to visualise the buildings as they once were as I make my way through the site. Some are almost complete. The Control Tower, the air raid shelters, the officers’ squash courts, the cinema with its toilet cubicles, all of these begin to reform and fill with people.
People are everywhere, 1500 of them, mostly men but over 300 are women. There are camps nearby for accommodation but this is where they are working, training, protecting, preparing for conflict. Love happens here and sex despite the best efforts to keep people segregated. A few women are removed in haste when signs of pregnancy appear. There’s no fuss. It’s too efficient for that.
Many different types of plane are taking off and landing, many coming in from the aircraft carriers anchored in Scapa Flow. They have romantic names: Swordfish, Roc, Skua and Seafire. Ground crew swarm over them, checking them out, servicing, refuelling – people caring for machines, for these shells are the only protection the pilot has. The veteran Swordfish showing its age in lack of speed makes up for all of that in how nimble it is in the air. It can dive within 200 feet of the sea and turn sharply to evade enemy gunfire. A fighter by instinct it’s most crucial role is in protecting convoys of ships.
Although people push it from their minds, Death is never far away, some are just simply accidents. The Control Tower is the hub of the airfield and without today’s sophisticated computerised systems, it oversees the flights. Today it is a ‘Building at Risk’ but has been cleaned out by the volunteers of the Birsay Heritage Trust who aim to open it up as a Visitor Centre. The telephone exchange is buzzing. Black and white film footage of WRENS prodding wires in and out of a mass of connecting points unreels itself in my mind as I work my way around the outside of the building.
This is council land and I can wander freely but some of the airfield is back in the ownership of a local farmer so I don’t stray there. Sadly he has recently removed one of the buildings to enable easier access for harvesting machinery. Time moves on.
Odd ruins of ancient stone farm houses intermix with the concrete military structures and foundations . From above, the runways are still visible but at ground level there is only grass. A memorial has been placed to mark those who served here and beside it an older unofficial cairn. People have added their own personal mementos to it.
Before the days of lockdown you could take a guided tour of the site which I would highly recommend when we are able to move about more freely again.
The history of our islands does not rest solely in a World Heritage site. Preserving and protecting the recent Past enhances our knowledge of the Present. If you visit HMS Tern, take your time and listen out for the voices of the generation gone.
Link to online survey: HMS Tern Survey
Text: Fiona Grahame Images: Martin Laird
A version of this article first appeared in iScot Magazine